In Illinois, partisan politics send budget battle into overtime

CHICAGO Any hope for a break in Illinois’ long-running budget stalemate devolved into more partisan bickering and deeper divisions on Wednesday as the state legislature was poised to end its spring session without a deal on a spending plan for a third year in a row.

Democrats and Republicans lobbed blamed at each other for an impasse that gives Illinois the dubious distinction of being the only state to go nearly two straight fiscal years without a complete budget. A third budget-less year risks potential downgrades of Illinois’ already low credit ratings.

Citing Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s unwillingness to meet, House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said budget talks will move to a June overtime session in which a tougher vote of a three-fifths majority will be needed for approval.

“The governor’s reckless strategy of holding the budget hostage to create leverage for his corporate agenda that pads the profits of large corporations and insurance companies has for the third year left Illinois without a budget at the end of the May legislative session,” Madigan said in a statement.

Rauner and Republican legislative leaders returned fire.

“Today we’ve seen a complete dereliction of duty by the (Democratic) majority in the General Assembly, once again, a tragic failure to serve the people of Illinois, a tragic failure to pass a balanced budget along with critical structural changes to protect taxpayers and grow more jobs,” Rauner told reporters in the state capitol.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno singled out Madigan for an unwillingness to break the budgetary logjam. Madigan is the longest-serving active state speaker in the country, controlling the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983. In August, he will become the longest-serving House speaker in American history.

“It’s crystal clear to me today, … Speaker Madigan absolutely has no intention whatsoever of changing a single solitary thing in this state,” Radogno said.

Democrats who control the Senate said they met the governor’s terms by passing a $37.3 billion fiscal 2018 budget plan last week that includes income tax hikes, a sales tax on services and spending cuts. That budget was not taken up by the House.

“We in the Senate did do our job. We passed a balanced budget,” Democratic Senator Heather Steans told reporters.

Illinois, the nation’s fifth-largest state, has been limping toward the June 30 end of its second-consecutive fiscal year operating under court-ordered spending, stopgap spending, and ongoing appropriations mandated by law.

As a result, the state’s pile of unpaid bills, a barometer of its structural deficit, has topped $14 billion. Major rating agencies, which have pushed Illinois down the credit scale six times to a level two steps above junk since Rauner took office in January 2015, have signaled more downgrades are possible.

The state’s cash crunch has delayed $1.1 billion in payments to public school districts, led to big spending cuts at state universities, and put social services providers on life support.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)